It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers and Sheila at BookJourney
Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Eugene Yelchin’s first middle grade book, was one of those unforgettable reading experiences. Set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, this was a story that uncovered life in a particular time and place that was largely hidden from those of us outside the Soviet Union. What gave the story added power, was that it read and felt like a most personal story – one that took years to finally tell. This is what the author himself had to say, after Breaking Stalin’s Nose won the 2012 Newbury Honor:
This book has been in constant circulation in our classroom, and it’s always a top selection when it comes time for our historical fiction book clubs. So, I was thrilled to hear that the author was publishing another middle grade novel this Fall. Last Tuesday, Arcady’s Goal arrived at my doorstep, and I am happy to report that it is every bit as compelling a read as its much-celebrated predecessor. Here’s the summary from the jacket copy:
For twelve-year-old Arcady, soccer is more than just a game. It is a means of survival. Scoring goals wins Arcady food rations and respect at the orphanage for the children of the enemies of the Soviet state. But Arcady wants out, and he’s determined to achieve his goal. In Soviet Russia, achieving one’s goal always comes with strings attached, but Arcady never expected those strings to tug at his heart.
To enter Arcady’s world, is to be in a place where all the usual expectations have been scattered into the wind. Yelchin writes about this in the afterword:
With the very formation of the Soviet Union, millions of innocent people were arrested, exiled, or executed as enemies of the people. Anxious about potential opposition, the Communist Party that ruled the Soviet Union destroyed anyone who might disagree with its regime. The terror associated with such preemptive strikes traumatized Russian people for years to come. The Communist Party ensured that that this trauma would live on even after the demise of Communism. It did so by shattering the families of the enemies of the people.
So, Arcady is in an orphanage like no other, surrounded by guards, on the edge of starvation, subject to the cruel whims of the grown ups in charge. Everything has been taken away from Arcady, everything but his skill at soccer, and his unshakable faith in his ability to make the soccer ball bend to his will. When he is suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, adopted by Ivan Ivanych, Arcady assumes that is solely because of this skill. He believes that Ivan Ivanych is a soccer coach who will help Arcady achieve his goal: a place on the Red Army Soccer Club team like his idol Fedor Brutko.
But, Ivan Ivanych is no super star soccer coach, just a school teacher. His wife, like Arcady’s parents, was deemed an “enemy of the people”, arrested and taken away to prison. Ivan Ivanych wants a son, someone to care for and raise with the hope of carving some island of normalcy in this crazy Stalinist world. Somehow, these two must work their way towards a relationship that is based on trust, perhaps even love. Arcady has been made hardened and cynical by his years in one orphanage after another, and Ivan Ivanych’s patience and good will are tested time and time again.
I love the many layers of Yelchin’s writing, and so enjoy the way his distinctive black and white illustrations work to uncover the stories underlying the main narrative. Arcady’s Goal, like Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a fascinating look at a historical time frame that we simply don’t hear about anymore. Books like this are so important because they tell us about the human cost of political repression. That being said, it is a book that will need to be placed in historical context for my sixth graders, who will need to be familiarized with some of the events taking place in Stalinist Soviet Union. I see Arcady’s Goal becoming another mainstay of our classroom library, another classroom favorite.
Here is a clip of the audiobook which shows some of Yelchin’s striking artwork :